Anne Sheffield had always followed her father’s rules. He’d said them so often that she could recite each one, as instructed, while her thoughts screamed as if muffled from within four prison walls. Many served as guidelines, principles of behavior intended to wear Anne down, little by little, until it appeared as if she had no opinions of her own. Then there were Stanton Sheffield’s three most important rules: 1. Never leave the house without a bodyguard and chaperone. 2. Never speak to those who were not among her father’s allies in Parliament. 3. Never offer any insight beyond the weather and lady’s fashion. In short, Anne was not to give anyone the impression she was more than an expensive vase: beautiful, but hollow. Displayed for no purpose other than decoration. As she had no friends to speak of, Anne’s father and her fiancé, the Duke of Kendal, designated themselves the arbiters of her dull, constricted little world. Anne was their weapon, privy to political conversations that ought never reach a lady’s ears—but this was information she kept to herself. Her father and Lord Kendal never had any reason to doubt that. After all, she did not share opinions.
She did not speak unless prompted. She kept her eyes meekly downcast. She showed no outward interest in gossip. Though Anne was well read, her expressions as she turned the pages never betrayed anything beyond lukewarm interest. Her father’s allies in Parliament praised the prime minister for the daughter he had raised. She was perfect, they declared. Their unspoken sentiment: perfect meant shallow, brainless, and attractive. A priceless artifact to display on the mantelpiece. The privacy of her own thoughts became a sanctuary. It was also like screaming into a silent, empty abyss.
No one heard her, no one saw her, and Anne could do nothing but one day plan for her escape. Anne Sheffield was going to break every one of her father’s rules. She had planned for months with the utmost care, waiting until her father left for a late meeting on Downing Street. The prime minister’s servants were as efficient as the crew of a ship, always on schedule, never deviating. She had long since memorized their movements, the pace of each individual footsteps. They counted down the hours she’d have alone with her own thoughts to plan and dream for that one day. Tonight. Anne donned her plainest dress and slipped quietly through the house. Once in the garden, she hurried out the back gate and onto the street. The misting rain gave her the perfect excuse to raise the hood of her cloak to obscure her features.
She shivered. The early spring weather in London was not warm, but brisk and wet. She tightened the fabric around her, quickening her pace. Not too fast, she thought. Rationality fought instinct; she could not look suspicious. She must appear as if she knew precisely what she was about. If anyone happened to recognize her— No, Anne couldn’t think about that. In three months time, she would be the Duchess of Kendal, and there would be no escape for her then. Anne turned onto the main road and hailed a hackney. Ignoring the critical look from the driver, she gave him the address of her destination in a firm voice.
She sounded calm; her heart was rioting. What seemed like an eternity later, the hack rolled to a stop in front of a quaint checkered walk leading up to a black door that gleamed as if freshly painted. Anne let out a breath. She schooled her nerves so her facade was one of cool confidence as she exited the hack. No one could have known she had to think a chant of inhale exhale inhale exhale to compose herself. Be brave. Knock. The butler opened the door. Anne had expected surprise or even disdain for a woman on the doorstep of a bachelor’s residence in the early hours. But he shattered that assumption by maintaining a politely bland expression.
She supposed many a lady had darkened this particular doorstep. “May I help you?” “I’m here to see Mr. Grey. Is he at home?” “And whom may I ask is calling?” Anne lifted her chin. “Please tell him Miss Anne Sheffield is here to speak with him urgently.” “Of course,” he intoned, opening the door for her. “May I take your cloak, Miss Sheffield?” “No.” She wanted him to leave before she changed her mind. “No, thank you.” “Very good, miss.
If you’ll wait in the front parlor, please.” Anne was surprised to find the parlor so pleasantly decorated and tasteful. Gleaming dark furniture was set against dozens of beautiful landscape paintings, each one displayed as if in a gallery. She would have said it had a woman’s touch, but perhaps Mr. Grey had intended that to make his usual guests feel at ease. From what she knew of him based on the gossip, he was a renowned lover. Considerate, and—they said—as handsome as the devil. More than one lady had blushed in Anne’s presence when sharing news of his escapades. Stanton Sheffield was less kind—he loathed the man. He considered Mr.
Grey to be a manipulative bastard who used underhanded means to push progressive bills through Parliament that were intended to change the very fabric of British society. In the world of politics, Mr. Grey’s reputation oscillated between devious and considerate. Publicly, he was known as a donor for causes. Women’s suffrage, worker’s rights—things her father scoffed at due to his belief in the God-given birthright of the aristocracy. A world that, to her mind, was fading into obsolescence as businessmen, inventors, and merchants grew richer than nobility. Anne knew Mr. Grey’s machinations were a source of frustration for her father. Donating to such causes was one thing, manipulating and bribing Members of Parliament into supporting and ultimately voting for them was quite another. Mr.
Richard Grey, renowned lover and most notorious rogue in London, was a Machiavellian schemer to rival Anne’s father. And that was exactly the sort of man she needed. Anne stared up at a painting, gathering her courage. She noticed, then, that Mr. Grey had more than one painting by this particular artist. Each was more striking than the last, vivid arrays of color splashed across the canvas. They sketched the outlines of beaches at dawn, the tempestuous waves of the sea, the gradient of the sands. Footsteps sounded behind her. Then, a voice as smooth as honey: “Miss Sheffield.” Anne turned, and couldn’t stop herself from sucking in a breath.
She’d heard that Mr. Grey was handsome, but she didn’t expect him to be as beautiful as some Biblical seraph. Like warrior angels in paintings, his hair gleamed like spun gold and his eyes were the most startling shade of blue she had ever seen. It wasn’t their color that surprised Anne, but the intensity. The way they frankly and shamelessly assessed her as if Mr. Grey were trying to picture her stripped bare and vulnerable. It was a heated look, yes. It was also unnervingly astute, as if she were a cog missing from some clockwork contraption, and he were an inventor trying to figure out where she belonged. Where he could place her. Perhaps, how he could use her.
But, then, Anne had grown accustomed to men using her. She planned to use this one back. Anne looked away first, back to the painting of the Cornish coastline. The name signed at the bottom was Caroline Stafford, who Anne recognized as the Duchess of Hastings. Her Grace’s paintings were all the rage among the beau monde for their distinctive style and vivid coloring. Anne had met the duchess before. She even wrote to compliment her work; no other intimacies were allowed, since her father had all her correspondence read. “You enjoy Her Grace’s work,” she murmured. “You have several of her paintings.” Mr.
Grey moved to stand beside her. “Do you like them?” “The strokes show a lack of restraint,” she said. Then, with a small smile, she added, “But the duchess does this on purpose. It adds to the wildness, the . ” He was staring at her now, and Anne tried not to squirm under his scrutiny. Her smile disappeared. “. The atmosphere,” she finally finished. “I think they’re extraordinary. But I suppose she must hear that often.
” “I’ll still be certain to inform her of your compliments,” he said. “But something tells me you didn’t come to my house in the middle of the night to compliment my choice of art.” “No.” She sighed. “No, I didn’t.” How did she go about asking for his help? It was scandalous, what she came here for. Immoral. But she was desperate, and sometimes desperate women did regretful things to survive. He interrupted her thoughts. “Would you like me to ring for tea?” “No,” she said.
“I would not like tea.” “Then if I may be so bold, I find the easiest thing in this situation is simply to tell me what you want.” “I suppose you’re not at all surprised,” she murmured, as if to herself. “This can’t be the first time a woman has shown up on your doorstep.” “That’s true,” he answered. “But never the daughter of the prime minister.” “What about the daughter of a man who loathes you?” Mr. Grey shrugged. “That’s a sentiment I’m well acquainted with. Though they generally come after a clear invitation for the obvious.
” “Lovemaking,” she said with a nod. “Fucking.” The word was shocking. Anne ought to have been scandalized, but she admired the honesty of it. Some relationships, she understood, did not require sentiment. When she didn’t respond, Mr. Grey added, “I have a rule against debutantes, if that’s what you’re here for.” “A rake with rules,” she said. “How refreshing. I suppose I should have figured you’d have some integrity, based on your support of progressive bills.
You have an impressive habit of annoying my father.” “Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. I consider it my mission in life to annoy Tories.” Anne couldn’t help but smile at that. She still wasn’t looking at him; she didn’t think she could. Though she prided herself on not succumbing to her father and fiancé’s mutual goal of making her submissive and brainless, she had difficulty meeting the gazes of men. Look down, her father had always told her. It is a bold woman who stares directly into a man’s eyes; it assumes they are on equal terms. They are not. He’d told her that a downward gaze showed humility.
Anne hated it. Hated that despite her mental rebellions, she found herself staring so often at her feet. Or, she thought bitterly, paintings of Cornish coastlines. Mr. Gray reached out and tilted her chin so she was forced to meet his gaze. His fingers were warm, gentle. Anne pulled away with a startled gasp. “Easy,” he said, dropping his hand. He had a kind expression, patient, as if sensing her internal battle. She did not like it.
“I’m quite sorry, I shouldn’t have touched you without permission.” All at once, Anne’s eyes stung with tears. It was novel for her to speak to a man who thought women mattered. Apparently, they asked for consent. They had rules that did not whittle a woman away until she was a hollowed out vase. They didn’t touch them without permission. Even a manipulative man like Mr. Grey understood such things. “Yes,” she whispered. “You have some integrity despite your habit of blackmailing politicians.
” Mr. Grey scowled. “If you’re here because you want me to blackmail someone for you —” “On the contrary. It’s your skills in seduction that I require,” Anne said, standing straighter. She blinked away her tears and evened her expression. “I need your help to find a husband.” R CHA PTE R 2 ichard tried not to laugh. Miss Sheffield’s expression a moment ago had been too vulnerable for him to jest about her proposal. “Miss Sheffield, as we’ve already established, I’m a rake. Marriage is not for me.
” Miss Sheffield raised an eyebrow. “I said that I require your help to find a husband, not that I wanted to marry you.” Now Richard let out a laugh; he couldn’t help it. “Finding a debutante a husband is not exactly in the job description of a rake.” Not that he didn’t appreciate an attractive woman on his doorstep. And Anne Sheffield was beautiful, quiet and intensely so. She was all graceful lines and petite, delicate framing. Red hair framed her small, lovely face, so vivid it was almost unreal. Her eyes surprised him most: they were wide enough to be innocent, but filled with an awareness he hadn’t seen in many debutantes. When she had first met his gaze, he felt as if the world had tilted on its axis.
Her scrutiny left him as off-kilter as a blade to the gut, and he’d lost control and touched her without asking. What had compelled her to come to him? It was well known in social circles that Prime Minister Sheffield hated Richard Grey with a passion matched only by people’s hatred for rodents. Not that Richard felt any differently. Stanton Sheffield was a cold, greedy bastard, and was in the pocket of more than a few rich, conservative aristocrats. It had been Stanton Sheffield who taught Richard that politics could rarely be won with honesty. It required lying, cheating, and stealing to force progress, and the men on the other side would not allow the country to move even a fraction from the status quo without a fight. And they fought dirty. Richard doubted Sheffield treated his only child better than his opponents in Parliament, otherwise she wouldn’t be here talking about marriage. Richard had to hand it to her, though: it took bollocks to come in the middle of the night and take a risk on a man with his reputation. “We’ve already established that you’re not just a rake, Mr.
Grey,” Miss Sheffield said. “You’re a manipulative schemer with enough political secrets to rival the length of a Roman history, I suspect.” His smile lingered. “Perhaps. But you’re not here for secrets.” “Yes, I’m here for your very pretty public face,” she said a touch impatiently. “You are an expert in the art of seduction, are you not? Assuming those rumors weren’t all lies you concocted to hide your nefarious deeds.” She turned back to the painting of the Cornish coastline, as if they were still casually discussing art. “Fucking, I believe you called it. I’d like you to teach me.
” Bloody hell. Was he dreaming? Or had he woken up in a reality in which up was down, left was right, and this woman who knew his secrets came for lessons in fucking? Good god. Richard made a small choking sound. “There is a distinct difference between marriage and tupping, Miss Sheffield, otherwise I’d already have a wife.” Christ, would she look at him? “I understand you’re something of a sheltered young woman—” She faced him then, her brown eyes ablaze. “I beg your pardon. If I desired to be condescended to, I’d speak to my father.” In her anger, she edged closer to him. “I know exactly what I want, and that’s to learn everything about how to seduce a man. I intend to use those skills to make him so desperate to marry me that he’ll acquire a special license and be willing to risk my father’s wrath to wed without permission.
That is what I need, Mr. Grey. That is what I require of you. I’m not so sheltered and naive to think this will be an easy task, which is precisely why I am here in the middle of the bloody night asking a man reputed to be the most notorious rake in London for help.” They were almost touching then, and he couldn’t help but notice that her breath was coming fast, her chest heaving beneath her cloak. What would make a woman so desperate? Unless . “Your father intends for you to marry the Duke of Kendal, does he not?” he asked carefully. At her startled look, he made an impatient noise. “Information, Miss Sheffield, is a currency I accept. You didn’t think I managed to manipulate associates of your father without learning a thing or two, did you?” Miss Sheffield lifted her chin.
“Fine. Yes. I am to marry him in three months.” “I also understand,” he continued, “that his age is considerably more than yours—” She laughed, and Richard couldn’t help but wince at how bitter she sounded. “Sir, I would marry a man older than His Grace if he was kind and treated me well. That is my only requisite.” Richard went still. “I see,” he said softly. Richard had some sense of honor, as crooked as it was. His sister, Alexandra, was an authoress who wrote about the treatment women endured in silence.
Things never discussed in polite society. At first, he’d read her work solely to impress one of his lovers, a widowed French countess who championed suffrage and considered him little more than a pretty face and a body built for satisfying her carnal desires. Long after their affair ended, he still read his sister’s work, but now to argue on behalf of those causes with Members of Parliament and the House of Lords. Men with influence. Men who, otherwise, would never have cared. Women whose husbands and fathers considered them little more than property was one such cause. His sister would likely plan his murder if he let Miss Sheffield leave tonight without help, and he doubted he’d forgive himself either. “You see what?” Miss Sheffield demanded to know. “He’s hurt you. Kendal.
” With a soft exhale, she retreated, her expression even and controlled. But Richard couldn’t help but notice how tightly her fingers clenched the fabric of her cloak. “I don’t wish to discuss my betrothed. Will you teach me or not?” He tried being gentle with her. “As much as I’d like to help, what you require is risky for me. If we were caught, I would consider it my duty to wed you.” “Oh, if only things were so easy,” she murmured. “His Grace could find me naked in the arms of another man and still meet me at the end of the aisle in three months time. No, I need a gentleman who can acquire a special license.” She glanced at him.
“Which you cannot, being both a second son and a man unwilling to stand as MP. I suppose it’s easier participating in corruption outside of the government rather than in it.” Richard shrugged. “I won’t deny it.” “And so I am here—” she continued, as if he had never spoken—“to ask for lessons, and to propose a bargain.” Immediately he was suspicious. She was, after all, Stanton Sheffield’s daughter. “What sort of bargain?” Her lips showed a hint of a smile—a look of amusement, mysterious. A Mona Lisa smile, with the smallest dimple in her left cheek. “My word, what a look that is.
I’m not offering you a poisoned chalice, Mr. Grey. Merely an incentive. I’ve heard you’re seeking support for a certain bill that would allow common men the right to private ballots. My father detests it. Landlords support him, you see, and they like to make certain their tenants vote a certain way. And he believes if the Irish vote privately, they’ll force the issue of Home Rule.” Richard stiffened. “I’m aware of that. What are you proposing?” “I am privy to the intelligence my father uses against Members of Parliament to keep them in line when bills come up to vote.
I’m proposing a trade: your lessons for that information.” “You want to help me blackmail people,” Richard said doubtfully. Miss Sheffield lifted a shoulder in a delicate shrug. “How you use the information is up to you. But I promise you: that bill will not pass as it stands now. My father has more than enough votes to throw it out, and whatever information you think you have on his associates will not compare to his.” Richard let out a breath and stared at Miss Sheffield. That bill had to be passed. He had men in his employ from Whitechapel, and the MPs for the East End counted among his friends. To say nothing of a few other gears he kept greased in that area of the city if he needed underhanded means to find information on men of influence.
And he’d promised to do whatever it took to get this bill passed. It would be so easy to let this woman walk out the door and say he’d done what he could, but it would be a lie. Politics didn’t come easy for him. The game was ruthless, cutthroat, dishonest. And Stanton Sheffield played it better than anyone in politics. “How do I know you’re telling me the truth?” he asked after a moment. He couldn’t trust this woman, not Sheffield’s daughter. “Why would any man let his daughter sit in on private conversations?” She stared at him a moment. “Fine.” But when he thought she might leave, Miss Sheffield let out a breath and said, “You have a small shelf of books in the foyer.
For aesthetics, I gather, but the why is not important. There are thirty-three books in total, rather poorly organized, which is how I know it serves little functional purpose. Eight volumes are on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, but you’re missing the second volume, which is a shame as it discusses various religious clashes and makes for a dramatic read. There are five volumes on philosophy, two of A Discourse on Inequality. I ought to commend you for having one, since my father forbids me to read Rousseau and I was forced to duck into a bookshop to complete it. To add, you have—” “Stop. Stop.” Christ, Richard was getting a headache. “For the love of god. Do you mean to tell me your father uses your memory as some sort of .
record-keeping device?” “That is indeed what I’m saying. Do try to keep up, Mr. Grey. I’m in something of a hurry. Do we have a deal or not?” He considered requesting time to think over her offer, but he doubted she would ask it again. He’d never have another opportunity to gain information that would destroy Stanton Sheffield; it was his daughter or nothing. His bloody daughter. Richard couldn’t believe it. “Very well,” he said, almost reluctantly. “We have a deal.
” Miss Sheffield nodded, as if she’d expected the answer, but it gave her no pleasure. Merely an acceptance. “Then we’ll start tomorrow night. I’ll come by again—” “Not here.” He would not chance someone seeing her. At her questioning look, he said, “I need to speak with a friend of mine, a lady with an impeccable reputation—in public, at least. She’ll issue you an invitation for a long visit, so this will have every appearance of being a proper arrangement.” Her expression darkened. “Mr. Grey, I don’t think you quite understand my situation.
My father does not allow me to leave the house unaccompanied for any reason, let alone for anything longer than a day trip. Even for ladies of impeccable repute.” Richard leaned closer, pausing only when he heard her short intake of breath. He wasn’t certain if it were attraction or fear, and he had no desire to encourage either tonight. “He will not refuse this invitation, I assure you.” She searched his gaze for a moment, as if she were about to argue, but she only nodded once. “Fine. I will await your word.” When she started for the door, Richard called out to her. “I’ll have a carriage sent round for you, shall I?” She paused.
“I’ve no need of your carriage. If I don’t hear from you, I will enjoy these hours of freedom while they last. I’ve no means by which to threaten you into compliance, and I’m not my father even if I did. All I ask is that you don’t lie to me when you say you’ll help me.” Who was this girl, to have such steel in her voice? How had she sharpened it under her father’s harsh, unrelenting gaze? Richard found he wanted to know. That he wanted to know her. Before he could answer, she swept out of the room, past his butler. The door shut, and the house went quiet. And Richard felt as if his world had been upended.